Ashleigh Barty finished Sunday on the top of the Red Group at the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen in south China following her 5-7 6-1 6-2 win over Belinda Bencic, and wrapping up the year-end World No 1 spot in the process in an hour and 57 minutes.
I want to end the year playing the best of the best Ashleigh Barty
“It’s been an incredibly consistent year across all surfaces, across all continents in the world,” reflected the 2019 French Open champion.. “I feel like [I’ve] played an exceptional level of tennis.
“It was a high-quality match – you have to capitalise where you can. I want to end the year playing the best of the best.”
The only way she cannot end the tournament as World No 1 is if she cannot walk on the court again this week, and Karolina Pliskova wins the competition.
In one of the most intriguing matchups of the week between 2 WTA Finals debutantes who had yet to meet on tour, the opening set was a joy to watch.
Ultimately, it was the Australian who made superior adjustments throughout the match to come through the unknown challenge, striking 30 winners and snapping 2 Bencic streaks in the process.
The Moscow champion was on a 4-match winning streak, as well as owning 4 consecutive wins over reigning World No 1s in her career.
Having been in the doubles event at the WTA Finals before, Barty started the match confidently as she looked to end an incredible season in the best possible fashion.
On the other side of the net, Bencic showed her early nerves, having never been at the WTA Finals in her career before, and fended off an early break point.
It was a comfortable opening set for them both, with Barty using a good variety of serves to open up the angles, while Bencic showed authority with her impressive power.
They probed each other’s games, and focused on protecting their own serves.
As a result, there were just 2 break points across the entire opening act, 1 saved by Bencic with a service winner in her 1st service game, and the other taken by her in the penultimate game after Barty threw in a pair of double faults and an errant slice while serving at 5-5.
The difference proved to be the top seed’s struggle with her ball toss, which was all that Bencic needed as she forced errors from Barty’s sliced backhand to secure the break for a 6-5 lead.
An ace secured the opener for the World No 7 in 50 minutes, and Barty needed to respond.
Landing 61% of her first serves compared to Barty’s below par 49%, Bencic also conceded only 6 points behind her delivery following that first tight hold, and wrapped up the set with her 3rd ace.
Barty responded by upping her game and taking up a more aggressive court position on her returns.
The 23 year-old Aussie was now playing way better as Bencic’s accuracy deserted her and the 22-year old Swiss notched up 13 unforced errors to only 6 winners.
Barty created an early 3-0 lead as Bencic struggled with her movement and looked to be in serious trouble, the momentum swinging away from her.
Just like the Swiss did in the first set, an ace secured the set for Barty as she levelled the match at one set apiece.
There was not much the Swiss could do after suffering a foot injury in the second set, which hampered her movement and increased Barty’s confidence.
A medical time-out before the decider got under way temporarily revived her fortunes with a sequence of high-quality points in its opening stages but, again, Barty raised her level even higher, her first serve percentage increasing to 59% while Bencic’s fell to 48%.
Barty’s ability to pivot tactically mid-match has been a defining feature of her success this year, and with Bencic seemingly impervious to her web of slices, the 23-year-old took control with her mix of spin peppered with occasional power.
Despite the lengthy medical time-out as well as a confident start, Bencic was unable to take enough risks to influence the outcome.
A lucky net cord sealed the first break at 2-1 and things just managed to get better for the Australian as she then managed to get the double break.
The match ended with a 10th ace from the World No 1 as she ended Day 1 at the top of the Red Group.
“I think it was a pretty high-quality match and it’s a difficult court to get rhythm on at times, so it’s important to try and neutralise when you can, and that was the biggest key in the second and third sets,” said Barty.
Next Barty will play Naomi Osaka on Tuesday after the Japanese secured her first win at the WTA Finals of her career with a 7-6(1) 4-6 6-4 win over Petra Kvitová.
The Japanese star hit 12 aces as she looks to end the season with a big title and, after the match she was glad to get a win under her belt: “I think just like winning given the circumstances,” Osaka said after her match.
“I’m not one who plays that well in the first round [of tournaments]. It was very difficult for me to play against her. I just tried to fight no matter what and I’m very glad that I was able to win.
“I just feel like it’s sort of the last push type of thing.
“Also I didn’t play well in the Finals last year, so I’m kind of just trying to redeem myself a little bit in that sense,” the 22-year-old, who lost all three her matches in 2018, added.
“Also, I know that somehow this year was better than last year. No matter what happens, I just have to play well and be proud of myself. But I’m here to win, and that’s sort of my goal.”
As for Kvitová, she will look to avoid elimination when she will play Bencic on Tuesday.
In the quality line-up at Shenzhen, Barty believes there is an even field and sees each player as having an opportunity to win the tournament.
“In my opinion, I don’t think there ever is a favourite,” Barty said. “I think everyone is deserving to win that’s in the draw.”
The 23-year-old added: “On any given day, anyone can be beaten. That’s the beauty of sport, there are no certainties. There’s always an opportunity for someone to try to bring their best.”